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'Heightened sense of anxiety:' Police increasingly face COVID-19 threats

Last Updated Apr 9, 2020 at 5:39 am EDT

Police cars line the side of Morningside Ave in Toronto on Tuesday July 17, 2012 on Monday July 16, 2012. The head of the Canadian Police Association says he is worried about the increasing trend of officers being threatened with COVID-19 while responding to calls. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim

The head of the Canadian Police Association says he is worried about the increasing number of COVID-19 threats officers face while responding to calls.

“During this particular pandemic there is a very much heightened sense of anxiety,” said Tom Stamatakis in Vancouver. “That just goes through the roof.”

There have been reports across the country of people claiming they have the novel coronavirus and intentionally coughing on officers. Police forces are warning such behaviour can be considered an assault on a peace officer.

A 24-year-old man from Coquitlam, B.C., was charged after allegedly coughing towards three officers during an arrest on Monday.

A 59-year-old man allegedly coughed into the faces of two Mounties in Wetaskiwin, Alta., on the weekend when they responded to a disturbance call. He was also charged.

Two days earlier, RCMP in Flin Flon, Man., said a 16-year-old boy coughed into an officer’s face while making references to COVID-19. It’s not believed the teenager had the virus, but the officer was forced to self-monitor as a precaution.

Ottawa police charged a 33-year-old man last month after someone spit on officers telling them he was COVID-19 positive.

A number of Mounties in Nova Scotia have also reported that they have faced threats of being coughed on by people claiming to have the virus.

Police are already facing unique pressure on the front lines of the pandemic, Stamatakis said.

While the general population is told to self-isolate, officers are heading out each day to interact with people in uncontrolled situations.

“There have been a number of events where people have acted out and threatened, if you will, that they are contagious or they have COVID,” said Danny Smyth, Winnipeg’s police chief.

Smyth said police there are dealing with each case differently, but such threats can result in a charge of public mischief.

Officers being spat at is not unique to the pandemic, said Catherine Fortin, an RCMP spokeswoman. But it now represents an even greater safety concern.

“The threat to transmit the COVID-19 virus is a threat to the well-being and health of RCMP officers,” Fortin said in an email.

“This is a criminal offence.”

Precautions are being taken. Operators with 911 are asking callers if there’s any threat of COVID-19 before officers are dispatched. However, Stamatakis said, in many cases there isn’t the time in emergency situations to determine if officers are truly safe from the virus.

“We often don’t know anything about the people we are interacting with,” Stamatakis said. “And we are typically interacting with them in an uncontrolled environment.”

Police services are enacting more stringent protocols around personal protective equipment. Not every police service has access to a lot of supplies, Stamatakis said, and individual officers don’t always have time to put the gear on.

“You don’t have the luxury of making sure you are properly equipped because things can unfold in a dynamic way.”

Edmonton police officers were called to a transit bus this week after there was an altercation between passengers. Police said one of the passengers repeatedly coughed on the bus driver and on transit peace officers before saying he had tested positive for COVID-19.

Intentional threats of COVID-19 against individual officers put pressure on the whole police force, Stamatakis added.

Police need to investigate whether the person is actually infected. Officers must self-isolate in the meantime.

Vehicles, tools and supplies have to be decontaminated — all of which takes significant time and resources.

There’s also a mental toll on officers who are already concerned they could be bringing the coronavirus home to their families, Stamatakis said.

He stressed that concern for officers is just as real as that for other front-line workers required to interact with the public. The number of police officers who have contracted the virus continues to rise each day, he added.

As of Monday, nine Toronto Police Service members had tested positive for COVID-19. Police forces in Windsor, Ont., Ottawa and Vancouver, as well as the Ontario Provincial Police, have also had cases of infected members.

The Edmonton Police Service said last week that a second employee had tested positive. The civilian member acquired the virus through exposure, not travel, the police force said.

“It is a difficult job often and in this environment, it is particularly stressful,” Stamatakis said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 9, 2020

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press


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